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Picturesque for how long? Cambridge water authorities on back foot amid fears for River Cam





This summer’s record-breaking heat – with Cambridge temperatures reaching a new high this week, along with an Environment Agency report advocating prison terms for the executives of the worst-polluting water companies – has brought home the scale of the challenge the region faces in the climate emergency.

Temperatures above 40C were experienced for the first time ever in the UK this week
Temperatures above 40C were experienced for the first time ever in the UK this week

The Environment Agency report, published last week, on water and sewerage companies in the UK, recommends “prison sentences for chief executives and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents”.

The study also showed that Anglian Water reported 14 serious incidents in 2021, more than any other water authority in the UK.

A spokesperson for Anglian Water said: “We’re extremely disappointed to have dropped to a two-star rating last year.

“This rating reflects a challenging year, especially given the extreme rainfall and widespread flooding we saw at the start of 2021. We learned a lot at the time, and while the impact was too significant for us to recover in 2021, we’ve significantly changed how we work since.”

The River Cam at Quayside. Picture: Mike Scialom
The River Cam at Quayside. Picture: Mike Scialom

Anglian Water’s combined sewage overflows discharged untreated sewage into the Cam Valley for at least 1,689.5 hours in 2021 – 4.6 hours every day. Sewage effluent is likely to comprise 40 per cent of river flow through Sheep’s Green in central Cambridge. E-coli has been deteced downstream of the discharges.

Anglian Water has been responsible for three river pollution incidents in 2022 so far.

The Cambridge Green Party is asking the city council to organise an urgent public meeting, in partnership with South Cambridgeshire District Council, with the chief executive of Anglian Water and senior representatives from the Environment Agency and Natural England, in order to address the scandal of sewage pollution in the River Cam.

The clock is ticking for scenes like this on the River Cam in Cambridge
The clock is ticking for scenes like this on the River Cam in Cambridge

Cllr Hannah Copley, (Abbey, Green) will put the motion to the full council meeting. Dr Copley said: “We must hold Anglian Water to account. Releasing sewage into rivers and streams is a health hazard; it no longer occurs only in emergencies such as severe storms, but is a regular occurrence.”

Sewage pollution into the waterways will also be raised in the House of Lords following the recent visit by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, who toured sections of the Cam on an exploratory visit to assess the effects of industrial sewage dumps into the water basin and other environmental concerns.

After the visit, Lady Jones said: “It was wonderful to visit Cambridge and to meet the Friends of the Cam as well as so many people dedicated to preserving the natural environment that we humans depend on so much.

At the Mathematical Bridge, from left, are Cllr Hannah Copley (Abbey, Green), Jane Willams, Ian Ralls, Wendy Blythe, Lady Jones, Jean Glasberg, Lord Bird, Terry Macalister, Sue Buckingham and Yvonne Nobis. Picture: Ella Hone
At the Mathematical Bridge, from left, are Cllr Hannah Copley (Abbey, Green), Jane Willams, Ian Ralls, Wendy Blythe, Lady Jones, Jean Glasberg, Lord Bird, Terry Macalister, Sue Buckingham and Yvonne Nobis. Picture: Ella Hone

“I came to see the damage done to the River Cam and other local watercourses by illegal sewage discharges, but was also told about the threat of over abstraction of water, plus the surprising plans for development of the area. The scale of the development that the council is permitting is quite shocking, building on valuable flood plain, destroying bat and bird and fish ecosystems, and ignoring residents’ need for a healthy local environment.

“I will be raising these problems in the House of Lords, as well as the curious stance of some Labour members of Cambridge City Council who have supported the damaging developments. I’d be happy to talk to them and explain the current climate crisis which will make natural water, air and soil even more precious.”

Cllr Katie Thornburrow, executive councillor for planning and infrastructure at Cambridge City Council. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Katie Thornburrow, executive councillor for planning and infrastructure at Cambridge City Council. Picture: Keith Heppell

Responding, Cllr Katie Thornburrow, executive councillor for planning and infrastructure, said: “The first proposals for the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan explicitly set out that the plans are entirely dependent on water supply being available without unacceptable environmental harm.”

Helen Smith, a drought manager for Environment Agency in East Anglia, said: “We continue to monitor our key river, groundwater and reservoir sites using telemetry, and are liaising with water companies to understand any emerging concerns.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb meets Cllr Hannah Copley (Abbey, Green) in Cambridge. Picture: Ella Hone
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb meets Cllr Hannah Copley (Abbey, Green) in Cambridge. Picture: Ella Hone

“We are also working with farmers, businesses and other abstractors to manage water availability and ensure that they get the water they need to be resilient while maintaining our protection of the environment.

“We are closely monitoring the developing incident and produce regular reports on the water situation.”

The last time East Anglia moved to prolonged dry weather status was in 2020 for the Cam and Ely Ouse area. The last time East Anglia declared drought – the result of three years of exceptionally dry weather across the southeast – was in May 2019.



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